Feile an Phobail event imagines how 'New Ireland' will accommodate all... but doesn't invite unionists
A West Belfast Festival event focusing on how Protestants would be accommodated in a united Ireland has come in for criticism for its exclusively nationalist panel.
Former Labour Senator Mairia Cahill questioned why no unionist or loyalist voices were heard on the Feile an Phobail panel at the Imagining a New Ireland event at St Mary's University College last night.
The event was chaired by Andree Murphy, deputy director of Relatives for Justice and the panel was formed of SDLP leader Colum Eastwood, Sinn Fein's northern leader Michelle O'Neill and Fianna Fail Senator Mark Daly.
Ms Cahill, who is from west Belfast, said it was a strange panel make-up. "I think it would be more useful to have a debate in this context which examines all of the difficulties the unionist community face with this issue," she said.
"There is no point in talking about what can be done to make people feel more comfortable with an issue if you don't include their voices from the outset.
"It would be interesting to see if that invite was extended for this debate, and if not, why not."
Last night, DUP Lagan Valley MP Sir Jeffrey Donaldson said talk of a united Ireland is neither here nor there, as unionists have no desire to give up their British identities.
"In fairness, the West Belfast Festival had invited the DUP to come to a number of events and I'm not sure whether they were invited to this one or not," he said. "I think that any consultations that need to be had, will be had around the political table.
"While events of this nature are interesting for some, they do tend to be a little bit academic in nature and culminate in one side talking to itself, rather than the kind of proper cross-community engagement we need in a neutral environment to accommodate the dialogue and a better understanding of the needs of both side of the community here. In the end we are unionists and we have no desire to give up our British citizenship, so talk of a united Ireland is neither here nor there."
Alliance MLA Trevor Lunn said it would be a better discussion if unionists were involved.
"If they are talking about a post-Brexit all-island solution, unionism must have an input. I see Alliance isn't there either," he added.
A festival spokesman was unable to say if any unionist speakers had been invited to take part in the panel or not.
"To focus on one event in a programme where all voices including many unionist voices on this subject are being heard seems wilfully disingenuous," he said.
"Feile is a platform for all voices to be heard and no discussion is off the table. There are many other events on this very subject where exclusively unionist voices are heard. It's surprising [Ms Cahill] didn't bother to look at the rest of the programme where there are lots of unionists talking and taking part."